It's no wonder my younger daughter's a bit bonkers, when you consider her maternal linage. On the Iowa farm where I grew up, we never used the term 'mental health issues'. But we had plenty. My own neurosis of choice was conceived the day I got my first period and my mother totally lost it.
I can't remember how I felt when I spotted that smear of rusty red in my underpants. What my mother felt, however, is branded on my brain. 'I didn't think this would happen to you!' Disappointment dripped from every bitter word. 'I don't have anything ready! I guess I could cut up an old sheet and and make some rags ...’ She was sobbing now. ‘After Mama died I had such good luck. Now Dad's influence is showing up again ... wait here. And just ... don't tell anybody!'
WTF?! Looking back at that bloody bathroom scene, I wish my 13-year-old self could shout that question at my mother. But I never talked back to her. I was her cherished little girl, and I loved her. Since before I could remember I'd been trying to soothe the wild grief and anger that screamed inside her. The last thing she needed was another big, mouthy teenager.
I’d had years of practice monitoring every word I said to her, but how could I keep my body from betraying her? Ah, I knew a way! I'd go on a diet, put a stop to those disgusting budding boobs.
I wasn't fat. In photos I can see evidence of hearty peasant stock, but I hardly even qualified as plump. Nevertheless, both of my parents approved mightily of my weight loss, which I achieved by eschewing the foods I loved best: scrumptious goodies my mother made, often using fruits or vegetables she had grown and preserved herself. It was like a small death, saying no to her warm apple crisp topped with whipped cream. I felt like kicking one of my precious cats with extreme violence when I had to smell and yet forgo my very favourite, little round pumpkins cut in half and baked with butter and brown sugar.
But I did it. I resisted. Also I decided I should exercise more. One particular day in late summer, I was hanging out at my cousin Rhita's farm, a mile up the road from ours. Rhita was my age, and that summer she was still my soulmate and my best friend. I suggested we walk the mile and a half to our aunt Jean’s, who lived over on the highway. Rhita pointed out that this would be a long, hot and sticky walk. She thought we should sneak off to some shady place with a couple of her mother's special magazines. Rhita had recently discovered the stash under her mom's bed, volumes of luridly illustrated short stories, the likes of which we’d never guessed existed. Men in these stories fell hopelessly in love with women. The women dreamed of these same men and eventually they got together in a passionate kiss. Sometimes they even put their hands inside each other's clothes.
I really liked those magazines. I was also afraid that reading them would make me go to hell. Jesus monitored my every thought as well as action, that's what I'd been taught. Heaven knows what He would make of the feelings generated by tales with titles like 'Afternoons of Secret Passion'! Most of all, I wanted to burn calories. 'Come on,' I prodded Rhita, 'don't be lazy.'
At that stage I still had influence over Rhita, so off we went. Sounds easy? It wasn't. We trudged down the gravel road through 37 degree heat, the air soaked with so much humidity it felt like we were enveloped in a hot, damp, very heavy blanket. Singapore’s got nothing on Iowa in August.
Jean was the skinniest of my dad’s seven sisters. When she was young she suffered from ‘nerves’. That’s what they called anxiety in those days. Her doctor had suggested she take up smoking. Jean hadn’t seen me since I started dieting, and when she clapped eyes on me she was thrilled. ‘Mary Kay! Look at you!’ she marvelled, running her hand admiringly along the side of my shorts. ‘I can feel your hip bone.’
Before then I hadn’t actually been conscious that I possessed a hip bone. For years afterwards, the first thing I did when I got in bed at night was to search for it, despising myself if my fingers found a covering of soft flesh where only a hard edge should be.
It was on that day, when I discovered my hip bone, that I received the single worst piece of advice I ever got. Of course Jean didn't mean to condemn me to decades of self-loathing. She was trying to be helpful as she confided to me, ‘I’ve been dieting all my life. And I can tell you one thing, Mary Kay. You're gonna get cravings. When that happens you gotta figure out exactly what it is you want and then eat it till you can’t hold no more. That way the craving won't come back for a long time.’
I tried out Jean’s method that very night. Mother had made sour-cream chocolate cake with fudge frosting and as usual, I refused it as dessert. But later, when we were watching television together, I decided the cake was exactly what I craved. So I went into the kitchen, cut a chunk from the pan and shoved it into my mouth. After depriving them of sweetness for so long, my taste buds sang with joy. More, they cried. More! More! So I cut chunk after chunk from the pan and ate till I could hold no more, or at least as much as I thought I could by with without Mother having a fit when she saw how much of the cake was gone.
The funny thing was, when I woke up the next morning, my craving had not disappeared. In years past I would have happily munched through a bowl of cornflakes and then got on with things, because I adored the school-free days of summer on the farm. Now all I could think of was cake.
So that’s how I developed, long before I every heard the term, an eating disorder.
Anna and I were on the tram, on our way back from a meeting at Odyssey House. They had proposed a program for her rehabilitation that made my heart light up with hope, but she was not looking pleased. I wanted to see her smile, that gorgeous grin I'd adored since she was 5 weeks old. So I suggested we get off at the top of Collins Street and have a snack at the McDonalds there. It worked. She might self-medicate with some pretty heavy stuff to deal with the storms and the monsters inside her head, but she could still be tempted by a cheeseburger.
We sat at a table on the footpath so she could have a post-Happy Meal smoke. This was last year, when I still believed if I could find just the right words, if I put all my creative energy into crafting a path for her, I could persuade her to walk (or indeed take a tram) towards a future I imagined.
Anna was crunching through the last of her fries when a tall young woman in a very short denim skirt stopped at our table. 'I don't usually ask this but ... could you ladies spare a couple of dollars?'
The girl was shivering, even though it was a warm spring day. She wore a jaunty, if rather grubby, white beanie atop her long dark hair.
'Sorry,' I said, 'I gave the last of my coins to the Big Issue guy over there.'
This was true. I'd learned not to carry much cash, because Anna had to stop and chat to every beggar and busker we passed. Having a street person actually approach her was gold for Anna. 'We could buy you a meal,' she chirped, rising from her seat and waving towards Macca's door.
'Oh ... thanks,' the girl replied, 'but I don't eat that shit.'
Still, she didn't seem in a hurry to move on. She had several dark scabs on her bare, skinny legs, and a large rose tattooed on her left forearm. She shook our hands and introduced herself. ‘I’m Tiffany.’
'How about a ciggie?' Anna suggested.
‘That’d be nice.’
Anna said to me, ‘We’ll sit over there so we don’t blow smoke on you.’ She led Tiffany to the table furthest away from me. Willing myself not to stare at them, I got out my phone for a round of Red Herring. Something good for my mind ... which, I can tell you, I desperately needed because my brain was about to implode. I kept Anna in my peripheral vision because I was afraid she would get up with her new friend and leave. She’d done it often enough before: invented some reason to get out of my sight and then vanished, from cafes and movies and our own home. For hours and sometimes days I’d have no idea where she was. Time after time I’d try her phone and it would go straight to voicemail, and that was a special ring of hell.
From the corner of my anxious eye, I could see she and Tiffany were deep into an animated conversation. Tiffany was sitting straight and tall, gesturing with a dancer’s energy. She smoked urgently, holding the fag firmly between her thumb and forefinger. Suddenly she stubbed it out and got up. So did Anna ... and they walked towards me.
‘Do you know where there’s an ATM?’ Anna asked me.
‘Why do you need an ATM?’ Perhaps there was a bit of an edge to my voice.
‘I just do!’ she fired back. ‘It’s my money.’
So it was. She had her Centrelink, plus a small income from a trilogy for kids we wrote together when she was in high school. I wanted her to save that, for a course she might want to do. And she’d need to rent a little apartment, once she’d finished at Odyssey House, when she was permanently sober and equipped with the life skills to get a job.
‘I’m from South Australia,’ Tiffany said. ‘I just got in this morning.’ Thus she explained her lack of knowledge of Melbourne geography. There was no need for Anna to explain. She has a university degree, but her navigational IQ is in the negative numbers. She can get lost at the Broadie shopping centre, trying to find her way back from the toilet to our table in the food court.
‘Come on.’ Anna grabbed Tiffany’s tattooed arm. ‘We’ll find an ATM ourselves.’
‘No!’ I was on my feet before she could get away. ‘There’s one across the street, in Collins Place.’
As we headed through the upmarket mall towards the gold and black triangle of a Commonwealth ATM, I pleaded, ‘Don’t give her much. You can't afford it.’
‘Muumm!’ Anna was horrified I had said that in front of Tiffany.
‘Hey,’ Tiffany said. She sounded serious as she put her arm around Anna’s shoulders. ‘You know how lucky you are to have somebody watching your back? Somebody who actually cares about you?’
Anna’s glanced over at me. ‘Yeah, I know. I do know.’
Tiffany sat down on a bench. And I, figuring Anna would return for her, sat down beside her. I decided I liked Tiffany. I couldn't resist giving her some motherly advice. ‘Tiffany,’ I said, ‘you gotta learn to smoke like a girl.’
‘What? Oh ... well ... I am in transition.’ She looked a little deflated. I hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings.
‘You're beautiful,’ I said. ‘And your voice is great. It's just that one thing.’ I held up the forefinger and middle finger of my right hand and raised them to my pursed lips, to show how a woman smokes.
Tiffany’s mood brightened. ‘I guess I could watch some old Audrey Hepburn movies.’
Just then, Anna sat down on the other side of Tiffany and handed her a 20-dollar note. I was relieved to see it wasn't more. Tiffany thanked Anna warmly. Then she turned to me and gave me a hug. She was kind of bony. But her hug was long and tight, and it felt wonderful.
As I write this, I know for sure I never would have chosen this journey for my beloved child, or for me. Yet if I hadn't been forced to take this trip, I would have missed out on meeting a lot of good people.
I’m never late for movies. But that day, I didn’t know I was going to a movie. My daughter was in detox, again, and this was the morning I was supposed to pick her up. It was never easy, being reunited with Anna, so I asked my good friend to come with me.
As Gill and I were heading towards the detox facility, my phone rang. They’d decided to keep Anna a little longer. Woo hoo! She loved it in there, and it gave me a few more days of freedom. ‘Let’s go to the Nova,’ I suggested. After all, it was Monday: cheap day. We could still just catch the morning session. Winter Sleep was playing, which we wanted to see because Margaret and David (bless their dear, departed-from-TV souls) both gave it four and a half stars.
We got our tickets with minutes to spare. Noting that the running time was three-and-a-half hours, we figured we’d need some sustenance. We decided Gill would dash down to Woolies for fruit, while I got the coffees. We’d meet in the cinema.
When I got to the cinema door, Gill was waiting outside. ‘I’d better go to the loo,’ she said. ‘It’s packed in there, but I found us two seats together, in the very back row. I put a banana on each of the seats to save them.’
The Nova’s layout is pretty novel, with each of its cinemas a different size and shape. This was one of the medium-sized ones. I made my way up the aisle and had nearly reached the back row when the message on the screen that tells us to turn off our mobiles faded away, and I couldn’t see a thing. On reflection, I should have waited for my eyes to adjust. But, as I got my phone out to mute it, at the same time balancing the two cups of coffee, a bright idea occurred to me. I’d turn on the assistive light. I shone my beam over the row, allowing me to see two empty seats at the far end. I proceeded to squeeze in front of the viewers, politely murmuring, ‘Excuse me,’ to each person. As I edged in front of the tall older woman next to the empty seats, a voice exploded out of her: ‘Jesus Christ! Everybody else managed to get here on time!’
Her words were full of so much venom, I was shocked into feeling like the chastised child I too often was. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, ‘I’m looking for two bananas.’ With my little torch I scanned the seats... they were indeed two empty ones, but I couldn’t see anything on them. The woman snarled, ‘Turn that light off! NOW!’
I dropped into the seat beside her. She wouldn’t let up. ‘I said, turn that thing OFF!’
‘Ok. Sorry...’ Hands shaking, I couldn’t find the button for the bloody light. Finally, somehow, I managed to turn it off just as the film began to roll. I sat with my heart hammering, groping around in the empty seat on my right. I could locate no tropical fruit of any description. Where were the bananas? Where was Gill? I looked around desperately and that’s when I saw, in the light of the now glowing screen, two seats tucked right up the back in the corner of the cinema, over to my far left.
Who knew there could be a row with only two seats? I squinted over there and sure enough, I could make out the familiar shape of my friend. But I couldn’t go to her. No way was I going to risk more public humiliation by scuttling in front of Dragon Woman. And it had been awhile since I was agile enough to scramble over the back of a seat. Gill, however, was fitter than me. If I could get her attention, she could walk behind my row and climb into the seat beside me. I tried a feeble wave, but Gill was staring at the film. Texting her wouldn’t work because I knew she kept her mobile in her bag, and would have turned it to silent. I had to face it: I was stuck, with Gill’s latte getting colder by the second. At least I could sip my own coffee... but then a terrible thought surfaced. I had ordered a large long black, and if I drank that, I was so gonna have to pee before this 196-minute movie was over. And then an even darker thought stomped in. Gill knows how picky I am about where I sit in the cinema. She thinks I spotted a single seat in the centre of the cinema and I’m so selfish that I chose that over her, leaving her alone and latte-less.
I rehearsed my pleas of innocence to her several times, until finally I told my inner voice to shut up. I had broken the rules of polite cinema citizenship, and probably my bestie now hated me. All this was out of my control. I resigned myself to just concentrating on the film. I actually did that for a while. It was, after all, the kind of film my daughters make fun of me for liking: mostly people having conversations in dim rooms.
About 45 minutes into the film, I became aware of a snuffly, snorty sound, not emanating from the screen. Looking to my left, I saw Dragon Woman’s chin dropping to her chest... here was my chance! I seized my coffees and edged across in front of her, my heart rising as her head lowered even further. No-one barked at me as I ‘excuse-me’d’ my way along the row. I plonked down beside Gill and whispered urgently, ‘Sorry. I didn’t see these seats till it was too late.’
‘Oh, I know. I should have told you about this funny little row back here.’
My heart hummed with relief. She still loved me! She handed me a banana and I gave her the latte, which she assured me was welcome, even if barely warm. I settled back to enjoy more of the procrastinating Turkish writer bickering with his sister. But now that I was safe beside my friend, my mind decided Dragon Woman deserved a severe talking-to. 'How dare you speak to me like that?' My mind created a separate script as the screenplay unfolded. 'The film hadn’t even started yet! And do you want to know why I was late, when my middle name is Punctuality? Do you have a clue how it feels to love someone so much that you’d give her years off your own life, if that would stop her pain? You want me to tell you what it’s like to have your heart break for somebody so many times that it feels like scar tissue in your chest? And BTW, everyone else is managing to stay awake during the movie!'
No, of course I didn’t say that. I didn’t want to create a scene. On the other hand, I didn’t think she should sail away, victorious, a sour old bitch without a shred of compassion for a baby boomer banana-searcher.
Although basically a wimp due to a heavy dose of emotional abuse during my childhood, I am no longer incapable of standing up for myself if I plan for it. Believe me, Winter Sleep gave me plenty of time to work out a strategy. When the film ended, I waited for the other patrons in her row to exit, then stepped in front of her before she could get away. ‘Excuse me,’ I announced, ‘I’m the person you hissed at before the film started.’
With the house lights up, she didn’t look like a dragon woman. She looked elderly and frail, wearing a lot of foundation and red lipstick. She glanced around nervously, not willing to meet my gaze. I knew I shouldn’t keep her cornered long, but before I stepped aside I delivered the line I’d prepared. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was good enough. ‘Lady, I hope you never have to be late for ANYTHING!’